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Classic U.S. Coins for less than $500 each, Part 17: Gem Early Lincoln Cents


News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #296

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds ……..

The most popular of all U.S. coins are Lincoln cents, which have been minted from 1909 to the present. A wide assortment of these may still be collected from change. Furthermore, circulated representatives of many, relatively scarce early dates can be purchased at small coin shows for less than $1 each. Although there are several practical approaches to collecting Lincoln cents, the current topic is collecting gem quality, pre-1934 Lincoln cents, those that grade MS-65 or higher, for less than $500 each.

In the realm of U.S. coins, a large percentage of current collectors assembled sets of Lincoln cents before considering other types of coins. When I was a kid, most of my friends collected Lincoln cents. Gem quality early Lincoln cents have a devoted following, partly because collectors of circulated Lincoln cents in the past wish to now assemble sets of the coins that they were so enthusiastic about when they began collecting.

When I was eight years old, buying a 1917-D and a 1917-S at a coin store was extremely exciting. Though the coins I then acquired were heavily circulated, they were of great importance to me and I was fascinated by the relative scarcities of various early Lincolns. By the time I was eleven years old, I was seeking pre-1934, uncirculated Lincoln cents.

Early Lincoln cents are those that were minted before 1934 or 1935. As the remaining Lincoln obverse (head), Wheat reverse (tail) cents from 1935 to 1958 are so plentiful and inexpensive, there is not a need to analyze them. Mint errors and die varieties, like 1917 and 1955 “Double Die” cents, require separate discussions. The 1922 “Plain” is really a malformed 1922-D and is not needed for a set. Before thinking about unusual items, it is best to collect Lincolns ‘by date’ (including U.S. Mint locations).

While I have been interested in early Lincolns since I was five years sold, I have never heard of anyone collecting Lincoln cents ‘by year’ only and ignoring mintmarks. In the realm of U.S. coins, ‘by date’ generally refers to ‘year and Mint location,’ including readily apparent overdates and design differences within the same overall type. In another words, more than one coin of the same year is often needed to complete a set ‘by date’ of a particular series. Last week, it was pointed out that 1817/3, 1817/4 and 1817 ‘normal numerals’ are three different dates of Reich Capped Bust half dollars. (Words in blue may be clicked to access pertinent articles.)

It may make sense to exclude the keys from a set of very high quality coins, if each coin is to cost less than $500. The highest quality 1909-S VDB obtainable for under $500 may grade AG-03 or Good-04. The highest quality 1914-D, for less than $500, would grade in the Very Fine-20 to -30 range.

Although more than a few dates cannot be acquired in gem grades for less than $500 per coin, an incomplete set of gem early Lincolns would be neat, attractive and exciting. Coin collectors are often content with assembling sets that are not entirely complete. It is important to focus on the excellent coins that are obtainable, with the given $500 per coin limit.

Yes, most early Lincoln are priced at less than $5 each in Good-04 grade. Collecting early Lincolns for $1 to $10 each is an important topic, though beside the theme here. This is the latest in a series of discussions about collecting U.S. coins for less than $500 each and most early Lincolns may be obtained in gem grades for less than $500 each. By tradition, coins that grade 65 or higher are of gem quality.

1930centGem, early Lincolns often cost much less than $500. PCGS or NGC certified “MS-66RB” 1930 Lincoln cents have sold for $40 each in recent Heritage auctions. A PCGS or NGC certified MS-66RB 1928 would tend to cost between $100 and $150 at auction. A certified MS-65RB 1928 would be likely to cost less than $85. Indeed, in March 2014, the firm of “GreatCollections” sold a PCGS certified MS-65RB 1928 for $62.70. Some other early dates are similarly priced.

In August 2014, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS certified MS-65RB 1928-D for $205.63. In February 2015, this same auction firm sold a NGC certified MS-65RB 1927-D for $423. Lincolns with a ‘D’ mintmark were struck in Denver. An ‘S’ mintmark refers to the U.S. Branch Mint in San Francisco. Philadelphia Mint, early Lincolns do not have mintmarks.

A complete run of gem, Philadelphia Mint Lincolns, 1909 to 1934, could easily be assembled for less than $500 each. Indeed, for every issue, a PCGS or NGC certified MS-65RB coin could probably be found for less than $400.

The 1912 and the 1915 are each a little less easy to find than the other Philadelphia Mint issues, though not difficult to find. In August 2014, Heritage sold a NGC certified MS-65BN 1915 for $211.50. Two years earlier, this same firm sold a NGC certified MS-65RB 1915 for $235.

The 1909 VDB is considered to be a subtype, which many people collect as a separate type in type sets. Victor David Brenner designed the Lincoln cent and, for the first few months of production, his initials appeared prominently on the back of the coin (reverse) at the bottom.

In July 2015, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS certified MS-66RB 1909 VDB for $152.74. That coin is mostly red.

In January 2015, Heritage sold a PCGS certified and CAC approved, MS-66RB 1909 VDB for $199.75. Although this price is higher than similarly certified 1909 VDB Lincolns have realized in recent times, this specific coin might well have been worth a premium. Along with some original red color, it features appealing blue and russet tones. The natural woodgrain texture is especially neat.

In addition to thinking about the texture, luster and other physical characteristics of early Lincolns, collectors should discuss grading criteria and the grades of specific coins with experts. If a coin that is certified as MS-65 seems to be available for a bargain price in an auction or Internet sale, this could be because other bidders have graded it as MS-64 or are concerned about the originality of the respective coin’s color.

1909vdbIn my auction reviews, I have put forth countless examples of coins that are certified as grading MS-66 and have brought MS-65 level prices at auction, in many cases because pertinent bidders graded the respective coins as MS-65 despite the certified MS-66 grade. Certified MS-67 grade coins likewise sometimes sell for MS-66 level prices. Certified MS-65 coins do not sell for MS-64 level prices as often, though this does happen. It is important not to take the certified grades too seriously and to learn about the coins themselves. It is a good idea to consult experts.

When certified grades and prices realized are cited herein, I am not recommending the respective coins or necessarily agreeing with the cited certified grades. Auction results are put forth to serve as guides and to provide some evidence regarding market values. No one auction result, however, should be considered a market price. There are many variables that may affect auction outcomes. (Please see my article on ‘What Are Auction Prices?’) If a large number of auction results are properly analyzed, however, prospective bidders may attain an understanding of market ranges for gem quality early Lincolns. Here, most auction results cited are believed to be indicative of market levels, rather than being particularly strong or weak prices.

Retail prices will, on average, be higher than auction prices. In some instances, however, auction prices are well above typical retail levels. There is no simple formula or master guide for determining the value of a coin.

A collector must decide the extent to which a particular coin is desired by him or her. Some collectors will pay more for copper coins with green toning, while others prefer blue or russet tones. Some collectors like copper coins that have sort of a ‘burnt orange’ appearance.

The Color of Lincolns

Newly struck, 95% copper, Lincoln cents were usually bright red. From 1909 to 1920, there were often impurities in the alloy that resulted in some Lincoln cents having a yellow hue or a seeming ‘woodgrain’ appearance. Many Lincolns dated in the early teens tended to be a deep orange color when struck.

Even when properly stored, copper coins may naturally change color in a short period of time. Most copper coins turn brown, often with shades of orange, russet, medium green and/or blue naturally developing. Electric blue hues frequently develop on early Lincolns, though bright or rich green tones are perhaps seen more often.

PCGS, NGC and CAC classify bronze and other copper coins as being ‘brown’ (BN), red and brown (RB) or full red (‘RD’). As of around 2009, PCGS no longer guarantees the color of copper coins. Does this mean that a PCGS certified MS-65RD 1918-S would thus be guaranteed at the same level as a PCGS certified MS-65BN 1918-S, though there is a huge difference in market value? In the PCGS price guide a “brown” MS-65 grade 1918-S is valued at $1200, while a “red” 1918-S is valued at $13,500. Regarding PCGS and NGC guarantees, I suggest contacting these services directly.

If CAC approves and stickers a coin that had already been PCGS or NGC designated as full red (RD), officials at CAC will be willing to pay a market price for the respective coin that is consistent with the market value for such a ‘full red’ coin, even if the respective coin has changed color in the holder since being CAC approved. Tampering with the coin or the holder will negate guarantees. Reportedly, some coin doctors place PCGS or NGC holders in chambers in laboratories and attempt to change the colors of the coins inside these holders by exposing them to gases.

Typically, copper coins change color on their own without being deliberately modified. Pre-1935, uncirculated copper coins are not usually fully red.

Is there is a clear distinction between “full red” (RD) and “red & brown” (RB)? Is a coin that is 97% red to be classified as ‘full red.’ Suppose its red level falls to 95% or 91%? Would it still be ‘full red’? Is a coin that is 100% mellow red more desirable in terms of redness than a coin that is 92% blazing red and 8% green? I have been examining PCGS and NGC graded copper coins for more than twenty-five years and I find the three categories of designations to be illogical.

A MS-65 grade coin with green and orange tones may be much more attractive than a MS-65 grade coin of the same date that is ‘full red’ or nearly so. Richard Burdick agrees, “I prefer a beautiful red-brown coin to a full red coin of the same grade that is not beautiful.”

To those who seek maximum redness, should a MS-64RD coin be worth more than a MS-66RB coin of the same date? The degree of red on a coin may very well be fleeting.

Also, coin doctors are far more likely to turn a brown or ‘RB’ Lincoln cent into an artificially full red coin than they are to add some red color to a coin that is less than 90% red. For the coin doctor, it is much more difficult to bring a coin from 65% red to 99% red than it is to turn a brown coin into an full (artificial) red coin. A coin doctor will often immerse a copper coin in a secret potion of inappropriate chemicals. A uniform appearance is more likely if the subject coin is all brown at the onset or has been dipped in an acidic solution to be entirely of a light color. If the subject coin has multiple colors, then more variables are probably being added to the chemical equations. The outcome would then be less predictable and more likely to be obviously weird.

coindoctorIt is important to be aware of the connection between color designations and market values. The 1927-D may be used as an example. The PCGS price guide values a MS-65BN 1927-D at $375, a MS-65RB certified coin at $575 and a MS-65RD 1927-D at $2000. Therefore, a coin doctor is much more likely to seek a MS-65RD certification than a MS-65RB certification. Moreover, the coin doctor may start by paying $70 for a MS-63-Brown 1927-D, ‘strip it’ with an acid and then put it in a magic potion. Alternately, it may  be chemically modified without first being treated with acid. Either way, the coin doctor would have a better chance at obtaining a MS-65-Red (RD) certification than a MS-65RB or MS-65-Brown certification, and would have more of an incentive to seek a full red (RD) designation.

Also, pertinent acids tend to turn brown copper coins to a readily detectable unnatural red or pink color. An effective doctoring process must include more active ingredients than an acid. Although coin doctoring is a terrible problem in regard to full red copper, most ‘full red’ Lincoln cents have never been doctored or otherwise modified.

Generally, a classic U.S. copper coin with a full red (RD) designation will command a substantial premium over a coin of the same date with a ‘RB’ designation. A certified MS-65-RB 1920-D might retail for around $630 and a MS-65-Red 1920-D could very well retail for $1890, three times as much.

“Full red early Lincolns are not worth the premiums,” Richard Burdick declares. “You cannot predict which red copper coins will turn brown while you own them,” Richard adds.

While red Lincolns that were never dipped or doctored may turn brown in a short period of time, doctored Lincoln cents may turn weird colors over time. It is often the case that a doctored, artificially red cent will be very deceptive shortly after it was modified and will transform over time such that strange colors develop. I have seen Lincolns that have turned pink, purple or bloodlike. It is not unusual for a deceptively “red” coin to turn a bluish-pink color after a few years. During the late 2000s, one grading service ‘bought back’ many of these.

Collectors of gem quality, early Lincolns may very much enjoy acquiring coins that are PCGS or NGC designated as ‘red and brown’ (RB) or just brown (BN). Many of the brown (BN) early Lincolns with neat blue and green tones, along with crisp luster, are exceptionally attractive. Orange and russet tones are often appealing, too.

Very Early Lincolns

Although there are some dates for which gems cannot be found for less than $500, there are many that can be purchased. The earliest dates, those before 1920, have a special allure.

A PCGS or NGC certified MS-66-RB 1910 could certainly be obtained for less than $500, and a certified MS-65RB 1910 would retail for less than $135. A certified MS-65, full red (RD) 1910 would probably retail for less than $250.

The 1910-S is certainly a ‘better date.’ In December 2013, “GreatCollections” sold a PCGS certified MS-65BN 1910-S for $495.

A MS-66RB 1911 might retail for less than $500. For the 1911-D, a ‘BN’ coin is much less costly than one that is designated ‘red and brown’ (RB).  In April 2015, Heritage sold a PCGS certified MS-65-Brown 1911-D for $329, and in January, a NGC certified 1911-D, also ‘MS-65BN,’ brought this exact same price, $329.

lincolncentrollA certified MS-66-RB 1912 costs less than $500. In 2014, Heritage sold a PCGS certified one for $381.88, with a green label. It had been graded at PCGS before 1999.

The 1912-D is much scarcer than the 1912 Philadelphia Mint issue. In February 2014, an NGC certified MS-65-Brown 1912-D brought $411.25. In January 2013, a PCGS certified MS-65BN 1912-D with a CAC sticker sold for $499.38. The San Francisco Mint issue is the scarcest of the 1912 cents. Although a gem 1912-S cannot be purchased for less than $500, earlier this year, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS certified MS-64BN 1912-S for $323.13.

Finding a gem 1913 is easy. Even a MS-65 grade 1913 with a full red designation might very well be priced below $500. An NGC certified MS-65BN 1913-D would be likely to cost less than $500. In March 2013, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded and CAC approved MS-65RB 1913-D for $528.75.

The 1913-S is a strong condition rarity in the gem grade range. Most PCGS or NGC certified MS-64BN 1913-S cents, though, should retail for significantly less than $500 each.

PCGS or NGC certified MS-65RB 1914 Philadelphia Mint cents tend to sell at auction or in Internet sales for prices between $150 and $275. The 1914-D and 1914-S are much more expensive.

For a gem set with each coin costing under $500, the following dates must be excluded: 1909-S VDB, 1909-S (no VDB), 1911-S, 1912-S, 1913-S, 1914-D, 1914-S, 1915-S, 1916-S, 1917-S, 1918-S, 1920-S, 1921-S 1923-S, 1924-D, 1924-S, 1925-S and 1926-S. Fortunately, though, except the 1909-S VDB and the 1914-D, all of these can be obtained in lower grades for much less than $500 each. For many of them, a PCGS or NGC certified MS-64BN coin may be obtained for less than $500.

Denver Mint Lincolns

It is interesting that the 1914-D and the 1924-D are the only two Denver Mint Lincolns that certainly cannot be acquired in a gem grade for less than $500. It may not be easy to obtain a certified MS-65BN 1915-D for less than $500. In March 2015, though, Heritage sold a PCGS certified MS-65BN 1916-D for $399.50. Most of the dates that are not mentioned here are fairly easy to find for less than $500 in a gem grade.

In March 2015, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS certified MS-65BN 1922-D for $305.50. If a collector fails to find a gem 1925-D for less than $500, it may help to keep in mind that a PCGS certified MS-64RB 1925-D, with a CAC sticker, brought $317.25 in a Stack’s-Bowers auction this year. That coin might fit well enough inside a set of ‘gem’ early Lincolns.

Although such a quest could be difficult, finding a gem 1926-D for less than $500 is a realistic objective. For the 1926-S, it might be best to settle for a MS-63 grade coin. The 1926-S is a tremendous condition rarity in gem grades and even MS-64 grade 1926-S cents are expensive.

Easy to Complete Most of the Set

The remainder of the set does not present much of a challenge. Although the 1931-S is relatively expensive in circulated grades, many original rolls survived and gems are not rare. On April 19, 2015, GreatCollections sold a NGC certified MS-65RB 1931-S, with a CAC sticker, for $299.20.

After a collector acquires a dozen, gem quality early Lincolns for less than $500 each, he or she may become interested in the extent to which these vary in appearance. Naturally toned, MS-65-Brown Lincoln cents come in an assortment of colors and textures The characteristics of a coin’s luster depend in part upon methods of die preparation, the mechanics of the respective coining press that struck the coin, and the extent to which dies were worn before being used to strike the respective coin. Collectors who study luster on coins under five-times magnification will tend to appreciate luster more and in additional ways.

©2015 Greg Reynolds


Recent Installments in This Series:

 Indian Head Quarter Eagles Indian Head Half Eagles | Two Cent Pieces | Three Cent Nickels




Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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